By Julia Glendening
Thursday, August 6, 2009
On August 5, 2009, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved an amendment to the County’s Water Protection Ordinance in an effort to decrease the amount of sediment runoff that enters the local watershed from construction areas. The ordinance will require developers to complete major grading work on construction projects within nine months or install permanent vegetation on the site. Projects already approved will have to establish vegetation nine months after renewing their next annual permit.
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Mark Graham, the County’s Director of Community Development, said the biggest issue is the timeline change for construction projects. Other changes within the amendment are administrative process improvements to void plans not currently in use and to reduce bond administrative costs from the 25% maximum to 10% maximum.
A timeline for construction projects is important because construction areas that are left denuded for a long period of time are susceptible to erosion from rainstorms and the soil can decrease the water quality of surrounding streams and lakes. The existing Minimum Standard 1 of Virginia Erosion and Sediment Control Regulations states:
“Permanent or temporary soil stabilization shall be applied to denuded areas within seven days after final grade is reached on any portion of the site. Temporary soil stabilization shall be applied within seven days to denuded areas that may not be at final grade but will remain dormant for longer than 30 days. Permanent stabilization shall be applied to areas that are to be left dormant for more than one year.”
Graham said this creates a loophole that allows projects to be left “moonscaped”, or completely without vegetation for an indefinite amount of time. The amendment to the Water Protection Ordinance was written to close this loophole. The vegetation would not have to be stabilized within nine months, only installed, because of the time required for permanent vegetation to become established. Graham also said staff would have the authority to make developers reinstall vegetation if it has not completely stabilized by the end of the subsequent growing season.
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation suggests that minimizing the area and time of disturbance is the best way to reduce sediment runoff. Graham presented a graph depicting the difference in sediment load between the current practice of completing a project in twenty-three months with the state mandated 60% efficiency and the proposed practice of completing the project within nine months with the same 60% efficiency. He gave an example of how the downstream sediment load for a hypothetical ten acre lot would be cut in half with the proposed practice. He also described how it would minimize the public costs and the construction costs as much as possible.
Two of the main proponents of the ordinance amendment were on hand to support its adoption. Morgan Butler from the Southern Environmental Law Center and Robbi Savage from the Rivanna Conservation Society both worked with staff to develop the stricter regulations.
“Our goal is pollution prevention. It is a lot easier to resolve a problem before it begins than to remediate a problem,” said Savage.
Scott Elliff, who is on the Forest Lakes Community Association Board, described the problems with sediment runoff in their community from the construction of the upstream Hollymead Town Center. He claimed the amount of sediment Forest Lakes received from the Hollymead construction site was 50 years worth of normal siltation since grading began there.
Graham met with local developers on August 3 to discuss the issue. Concerns were raised with the cost for contractors and whether the nine month deadline will be difficult to meet. The cost of permanent vegetation is estimated at $3,000 per acre; however, the main issue is how much contractors will have to reinstate vegetation throughout different project phases. Graham said the decision for a nine month completion date was influenced by the
2007 proffer with the Biscuit Run developers
who voluntarily agreed to the timeline. He also said 30 to 40% of current projects are completed or under permanent cover within nine months.
Jay Willer, from the Blue Ridge Homebuilders Association, said he did not intend to block increased erosion controls, but he was concerned with imposing the nine month timeline for all projects regardless of their complexity or start date. He also warned the Board that the deadline could impose higher costs, which would ultimately be reflected in increased home prices throughout Albemarle County.
“We’re asking for the flexibility that still allows gains in erosion control, but is also adaptable to the complexity and details of a specific project. Not a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” said Willer.
Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) said he did not believe this was a particularly aggressive approach because he did not believe there would be projects bigger than Biscuit Run whose developers approved the nine month timeline.
A waiver could be obtained for incomplete projects after nine months that are unable to install vegetation due to conditions beyond the contractor’s control. Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) suggested increasing the length of an administrative waiver issued by staff from a possible three month extension to six months. He said staff were the experts on the project and it would keep some extension applicants from coming to the Board who would ultimately look to staff for help on the decision.
Supervisors Ann Mallek (White Hall), Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller), and Rooker all expressed concern with reducing the amount of extensions that would be presented to the Board because of the reduced public involvement.
“The value of coming to the Board of Supervisors is that it allows the public to have watched this project and see how these developers are managing the runoff,” said Thomas. “I think it just adds an additional incentive for the developer to be doing a good job.”
Graham said the staff extension is for projects affected by uncontrollable conditions; however, a waiver could be brought before the Board at any time during the project’s duration and for any reason. He said some decisions are less technical and more political when balancing environmental and business costs, which he believed might be better suited for the Board’s discretion.
Thomas said she was bothered by the indefinite waiver that could be potentially granted by the Board; however, none of the other Supervisors felt comfortable setting a maximum deadline. The legal language was changed so the Board at the very least must set a time limit for an extension so projects could not be granted an open-ended waiver.
The Board approved the ordinance with the provisions to lengthen the administrative extensions from three months to up to six months and a requirement for the Board to set a time limit when granting waivers. The effective date will be 30 days after approval for new applicants and existing permits will be “grandfathered” until the date of their annual permit renewal.
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